Alabama STEM Education: Working to Make a Difference. Alabama STEM Education is a nonprofit organization that targets middle and high school students in Birmingham and teaches them about STEM education.
Published: July 31, 2018
By: Paige Townley
Juanita Graham spends hours every week at Alabama STEM Education working with children, creating fun and exciting programs her students will enjoy, managing volunteers, and finding ways to reach more children. These tasks are certainly time-consuming, but to her, it’s not a job. It’s her calling.
Graham started Alabama STEM Education really by chance. It was 2014, and she had approached some contacts at UAB regarding another topic. They were so impressed with her research and writing that they encouraged her to be their liaison to reach underserved students in various Birmingham communities with STEM education. STEM – which stands for science, technology, engineering, and math – was a completely new idea for Graham. “They first had to explain to me what STEM was, and I was very apprehensive,” she says. “They gave me a pamphlet to take home and read over, and so I did.”
Reading that information was world-changing for Graham, especially when she learned that minorities were given little to no access to STEM education learning and thus held fewer jobs in those fields. “I started crying,” she says. “Being an African-American female, it really hit me that there are so many underrepresented, underserved students that don’t have access to this education that can give them a little more advantage in life. After I was done crying, I got mad. And when I get mad, I go into action. For me, it was a must that they get those opportunities.”
Graham began researching the topic, and she learned even more statistics about how students in the United States fall behind many of their peers around the world when it comes to STEM. “We’re falling behind, and it’s no coincidence that we have a large group of the population with no accessibility to these disciplines,” she adds. “If we teach these underrepresented, underserved students these four disciplines, we can be number one in STEM-related careers.”
From that research came Alabama STEM Education, a nonprofit organization that targets middle and high school students in Birmingham and teaches them about STEM education. Instead of going into schools, the organization has its own facilities for students to attend. “The environment is very critical in order to get kids to concentrate and understand what you’re teaching them,” she says. “We had to have our own space outside of the schools.”
Graham bought office space in Bessemer and started programs for kids to participate in after school. With each visit, students are motivated to learn about STEM through hands-on, engaging teaching in a fun environment. “We want energetic, hands-on learning and teaching, no one standing behind a podium lecturing kids,” she adds. “We make it a point not to have the space look like a classroom.”
The organization’s very first program, Raise the Bar, is a 10-week program that’s held on Saturdays. Elementary-age kids attend in the morning, and then middle and high school students attend in the afternoon. Each Saturday has its own curriculum, and it can vary from coding to aeronautics to robotics to biotechnology.
During the summer Alabama STEM Education focuses on its summer camp. Running from June until August, the camp includes exposure trips for students, which are all centered around STEM topics. Students are taken on at least two trips a week. “We go to all sorts of places, like the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville and the forensic science department at Jacksonville State University, and unexpected places like the military base in Gadsden to see how STEM plays a factor into the military.
“We try to think outside the box for these students because they haven’t been exposed to very much. We try to give them the best of everything and let them see there are options out there.”
The organization hosts multiple camps each summer at various locations around the Birmingham area. Along with STEM education, students attending the summer camps also learn how to perform with the utmost of excellence. Life skills are a major part of the camp’s agenda. Students are taught how to negotiate, debate, and disagree. “We try to show them that you can have a disagreement with no one right and no one wrong,” Graham adds. “We try to show them how to look at both sides of a disagreement, and that it’s OK to disagree. We want them to leave having the right perspective on that. We really pride ourselves on teaching life skills like these along with STEM-related education.”
Another significant program of Alabama STEM Education is T.A.P.E. (tutoring and practical exposure). Held during the school week, the program works to tutor students on various school subjects, including reading and writing. “We teach them how to build their grammar and make sure they understand the usage of words,” she says. “We want to make sure they really know how to read and understand the usage of words and make sentences.”
Graham’s two sons recently graduated with STEM education-focused degrees – one already landing a job in his chosen industry – and she knows her kids could so easily have been part of the statistics she so desperately wants to change. “I have huge faith, and I was determined that my two weren’t going to be another statistic,” she says. “Statistics say that they were supposed to fail, and they didn’t. They are proof that you don’t have to fail. So I know that if I can do it for my two that gives me enough validation to know I can help others too.”
For more information, visit alabamastemeducation.org.
Paige Townley is a Birmingham freelance writer.